Rule 4: Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate


Evaluate everything you read, see and are told. Don’t accept anything at face value. Fake news and conspiracy theories have always been with us and in recent years have proliferated. Respectable media outlets also need scrutinising with a generous dollops of scepticism. Most of our information about the world comes from such sources and while they might claim to be conveyors and purveyors of the truth, their facts must always be checked.

I wanted to use the remark here that everything you read in the news is true until it’s about something you know about but it appears, ironically, to have disappeared from the internet. I can’t attribute it, nor quote it accurately. Nonetheless, it remains essentially true. The trick is to ensure you do know what is being talked about. Don’t take someone else’s word for it. They don’t always check their sources, have their own agenda and are invariably in a hurry; accuracy is the casualty of one or all of these.

What is the solution? Some advocate not listening to/watching/reading the news at all, while avoiding all online chatter. Certainly this is tempting, but in these Covid lockdown days perhaps not altogether practical. More realistic is to ask the questions: how does this outlet know this? What is its source? How reliable is this source? Why is it reporting it in the way it is? What is significant or suspicious about the language it uses? Answers to these questions should help navigate the torrent of misinformation that’s out there.

Starting at the bottom of the cesspool, we can safely disregard anything that is proffered as coming directly from the Lord (or any other supernatural agent). Any number of self-appointed ‘prophets‘ have told us recently that God himself informed them that Donald Trump would easily win a second term. They announced he’d also vanquished Covid-19 at their bidding. Don’t even bother asking the questions I suggest above of this sort of batshittery. Dismiss it out of hand.

One step up from this is the stuff that informs us that ‘the Bible says’. This is merely a second-hand version of the claim that God has delivered a message personally. Quoting first century fantasists who believed God had spoken to them is not an advance in the sourcing of accurate information.

Don’t believe anything that cites an unspecified source. The tabloid press in the UK is fond of referring to ‘sources close to the government’ or ‘boffins’ (journalese for unspecified scientists who have invariably discovered a miracle cure or diet). Sources that cannot be verified may as well not exist. In all probability they don’t; they’re made up by lazy reporters and conspiracy theorists. Anything that requires a manufactured source is, by definition, unreliable. Don’t be taken in by it.

Then there’s the mainstream, ostensibly respectable media. Broadsheet newspapers and, here in the UK, the BBC, Sky and so-called Independent Television News (ITN). However these media have earned their respectability, there is no reason not to apply the enquiries I outlined above; moreso when they rely on their reputed respectability, assumed by many to be synonymous with ‘accurate’ and ‘reliable’, to inform and direct our thinking. Take as an example the reporting this week of Covid-19 fatalities in the UK by both the BBC and Sky TV news. Significantly, both networks used an identical phrase to announce that 454 death certificates on a given day ‘mentioned Covid-19.’ (you can see it used here on the BBC‘s web-site.) Notice how the word ‘mentioned’ slips by; the number of deaths is the focus of the announcement.

But what does this ‘mentioned’ mean? That 454 people died as a direct result of the virus? Evidently not, otherwise the announcement would say so: ‘454 people died of Covid-19 today.’ It doesn’t, though perhaps the use of ‘mentioned’ is intended to make us think this is the case. In fact, the phrase is the replacement of an earlier one designed to amplify the number of deaths attributable to the virus. This read ‘x number of people died with Covid-19’, conflating ‘with’, with ‘of’. The two are evidently not the same. The number of deaths directly attributable to Covid is lost, masked by the number of unfortunate individuals who had indeed contracted the illness but died of other causes, as humans, particularly elderly ones, are prone to doing. 

In fact, both the old and new phrases emanate from the Office of National Statistics, a government body that exists for who knows what useful purpose. That the BBC and Sky News adopted both phrases – the earlier one that tried to make ‘with’ mean the same as ‘of’ and the newer one with its casual use of ‘mentioned’ – reveals that neither the BBC nor Sky did their own work here; they merely repeated (parroted?) what government sources told them. How much more of their Covid reporting was and is like this?

None of which is meant to imply that the pandemic is fake news. Clearly it isn’t. Nor is it likely it represents any sort of conspiracy on the part of government or press. To coin a phrase, there is no need to ascribe to deviousness that which is adequately explained by incompetence or compliance. Reporting fatalities in this way has meant, however, that the UK appears statistically to have the highest mortality rate from Coronavirus in Europe. It has also helped alarm the populace into compliance with severe lockdown restrictions.

How many people have died as a direct result of Covid-19? We can’t tell from these particular statistics, reported as they are with a misleading use of language.

Evaluate everything.


Rule 3 Story: Neville

He’s over there, talking to her now. The two of them like hoodies on a street corner. She’s upset, he’s looking over at me with that look of his. The one that means, ‘I’ll get you, you evil little toad.’ What do I care what he thinks. So I answered the old cow back. If she can’t take it she shouldn’t be here.

Now he’s coming over, still trying to look like some sort of a tough guy. I make out to ignore him. What do I care.

‘Neville Fowler,’ he says. And then he sees Roy with me and says to him. ‘Roy Andrews. Get that silly grin off your face and both of you get yourselves over here. Now.’ So we do, as slow as we can, like. The silly prat doesn’t bother me and Roy.

‘What?’ I say as we get near him. ‘What d’you want?’

Old Robbo curls his lip and takes his time. It’s hard not to laugh. I know if I look at Roy we will, so I don’t look at him. The sooner we get this over with the sooner we get back in the lunch queue.

‘You inconvenience a member of my staff…’

‘Inconvenience? Don’t know what you mean.‘ I say. I mean, inconvenience. Who’s he think he is?

‘You inconvenience a member of my staff, or me or, indeed, any other pupils…’

‘Pupils, sir?’ I say. ‘What’s pupils?’

‘You inconvenience a member of my staff, me or anybody else, Mr Fowler, and I promise you, I will inconvenience you even more. You understand?’

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Can we go now?’ I look at Roy.

‘Do you understand?’ he says again, like there’s one of those full stops he’s always on about between each word.

‘I said I did, didn’t I?’ I say. What a prat.

‘Then you can go and join the lunch line again,’ he says.

‘Thanks,’ I say sarcastically and Roy smirks. We walk back to the line, enjoying all the admiring glances that are coming our way. The queue’s moved on and we’re up near the front now. We push Adele Hargreaves and her mate out the way and get our place back.

‘Just a minute, Mr Fowler. What you think you’re doing?’ Robbo’s followed us over. Creepy or what?

‘Getting back in the line again, like you said. You forgot already?’

‘No, I didn’t forget,’ he says. ‘But obviously you did, when I said if you inconvenienced me or my staff, I would inconvenience you more. Your place in the queue is there,’ and he points to the end of the line, twenty people away at the far side of the room.

‘Oh but, sir. That’s not fair we’re near the front.’

‘Not any more, you’re not,’ he says and stands there waiting. ‘Go on.’ And me and Roy do. I don’t know why, we just do. We set off for the end of the line.

‘And that, Neville,’ Robbo says as we pass him, ‘is what’s called an inconvenience.’


Rule 3: Take responsibility for your actions and their consequences

‘Take responsibility for your actions and their consequences’ sounds preachy, though I don’t mean it to be. ‘We’ definitely includes me!

Politicians exemplify the lack of foresight that needs to precede action. From Trump’s actions and speech while president that deepened divisions within the United States, to the British government’s stop/start policy for lockdowns, politics is beleaguered by short term thinking. Rarely do presidents and prime ministers have regard for the long term consequences of the decisions they make.

I’ve noticed that many people seem to have no idea that their personal behaviour inevitably produces results of one sort or another. How could they not? Yet so many seem oblivious to the fact that action (even inaction) has consequences; oblivious or wilfully ignorant. These consequences are not always the ones that might be expected – see the law of unintended consequences – and certainly they are not always positive or beneficial.    

The rest of us can be much the same. We think only of now. Indeed, we’re encouraged to do so by exhortations to ‘live in the moment’ and  ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’ – but as useful as such existential advice might be, we also need to give some though both to the future and to the impact our behaviour might have on others. And we need to own it. Our individual behaviour and its consequences are our personal responsibility, if we’re mature adults that is (and isn’t this what we try and instil in our children?)

We have nobody else to blame for either the way we act nor for what it leads to. Nobody makes us act or react in a particular way, we make the choices ourselves. Granted we may not all have the same advantages in life. Our background and personal baggage may well influence how we behave. Nonetheless, our behaviour, and what it leads to, is ours alone and ours to own. Given this, it is well to give some thought to the consequences of our actions ahead of time. ‘Act in haste, repent at leisure’ as the old proverb has it.

A woman – let’s call her Sarah – who was a member of a group I once belonged to was sharply critical of everyone else. She could, in fact, be extremely nasty. However, if anyone responded to her in kind, as people often did having been subject to her unpleasantness, Sarah was stung and deeply offended. ‘What an extremely rude person,’ was her usual retort. In this way, she systematically fell out with most other people in the group. When a new person joined, someone with whom Sarah had fallen out with previously, she declared she would leave if this person was allowed to stay. She had no supporters, having behaved unreasonably with most other members and consequently Sarah left, feeling unjustly and unkindly treated. She could not see how her downfall was of her own doing.

We can take credit when the effect of our actions is positive. We need to take responsibility when it isn’t. If we wrong someone else or affect their or our own lives adversely, then it is up to us to make reparation, to put right what we can. What we haven’t done, however, is offended any gods. We have not ‘sinned’. Neither has anyone had to die to fix things for us. No imaginary sacrifice from thousands of years ago is going to pay a penalty on our behalf. We remain irresponsibly infantile if we excuse ourselves with such thinking. We are the only ones who can take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. We learn and grow when we do while others are ‘saved’, from our carelessness and belligerence.

Story for Rule 2: Endgame

Very dark. Can barely see. Fading light in the far distance. Too frightened to move. Don’t know what’s underfoot. Damn, talking to myself. Hope no-one can hear.

You’re here too. Knew you would be.


It’s me, old friend. Right beside you.

Who’s me? Can’t see you. You’re just… a disembodied voice.

You too.

So where are we?

Where’d you think? Where we always are.

You know, this isn’t making much sense. I remember being in bed, then… here. Am I dreaming?

No… I don’t think so. Something else.

I’m not… not… dead, am I?

Course not. You wouldn’t be here talking to me if you were dead. I thought you knew: once you’re dead you’re dead. That’s it. No afterlife.

Okay, yes, I do know that. But this… this isn’t the judgement, is it?

Judgement? There’s no judgement. No sin from which to be absolved. You know it doesn’t work like that.

You’re right, I do know that. But what about regrets? And guilt? I’ve quite a lot of those.

Not a lot of point though, is there? I mean, what can you do about it now?

I could make changes. When I wake up – this is a dream, right? – when I wake up, I’m going to make some changes. I’m going to tell my children, grown up now of course, that I love them. I never told them enough.

They know.

Yes, but I want to tell them. Tell them and hug them. I’ve never been as demonstrative as I should’ve been. I regret I wasn’t a better parent.

Still, if they’re adults now, they’ve made it haven’t they?

Well, yes. I guess so, but I can’t help but feel I should’ve done more with life.

Such as?

Doing something worthwhile. Something that was me. I should’ve been more myself. Not tried to be something I wasn’t.


That’s what religion did for me. I certainly regret that!

You know, there’s no point regretting anything. Not now.

I thought you said this wasn’t the judgement?

You wouldn’t be here if it was. As I’ve already tried to explain, neither of us would. There’s nothing on the other side. Nothing. The fact we’re here at all proves this isn’t some sort of life after death.

So, why are we here, wherever here is? And who are you, anyway?

I thought you knew. I thought you’d recognise my voice after all this time.

Your voice? Why would I recognise your voice?

Because, my friend, I’ve always been here beside you.

You have?

I have. But now we have to go. Both… of us. Time… is up and it’s… getting darker.

Go? Go where? Why can I barely hear you now?

It has been good… knowing you. We’ve made a good team. But time… is… short.

Wait. What are you

We’ll go together. Like always

Yes, okay. We’ll go togeth


Rule 2: This Is It (so make the most of it)

My partner Dennis and I often take a walk in the local cemetery. It is a sobering experience but also, strangely, an inspiring one. Graves there date back to the 1700s, right through the 19th and 20th centuries to burials that have taken place in the past few years. Many people died young, not only in previous centuries, but recently. There are many graves of children and babies. Equally, there are many gravestones that record the long lives some people lived, even in the years before modern medicine.

All of these people, whatever the extent of their existence, lived real lives. They experienced the same highs and lows as those of us alive today. They enjoyed love and celebrated the same occasions we do. They suffered pain and hardship in much the same way as us, probably more so. They shared the same hopes and aspirations, for themselves and their children, experienced the same successes and disappointments. They sought meaning, some of them finding it (or having it imposed on them post-mortem) in religion, if the inscriptions on their tombstones are anything to go by. Quite a few modern graves have them to.

And yet, to what end? Every one of these people is gone. Long gone in most cases. They and their concerns, loves, hopes, dreams, worries and aspirations, whatever they were, died with them. None of them, not even those who trusted their souls to Jesus, has a renewed existence. Not one of them has gone on to a new life here or in heaven. Death was the end, as it will be for us too.

Which is where the inspirational aspect of contemplating the brevity of existence comes in. The few decades for which we are alive (if we’re lucky) is all there is. They are the only time we will experience life. We owe it to ourselves to enjoy each and every moment as well as we’re able. This life is not a prelude for another, better one after death (what sort of nonsensical contradiction is that?) This is it.

So, live the life you have. Savour every moment, even in lockdown or the mundanity of the daily grind. Change whatever it is that stops you from living. Live life fully while you can.